The Failing State Next Door: The War On Drugs And Civil Order In Mexico


Every time they find a mass grave, they think it’s the one they’re looking for – but it isn’t.

No, this isn’t a Halloween tale: it’s a real life story about 43 missing Mexican students who once attended the Escuela Normal Rural Isidro Burgos, a small teachers’ college in the southern state of Guerrero. The rural, desperately poor region – long plagued by violence, armed rebellion, and criminal activity – is now at the center of a drama that underscores the dawning truth about our neighbor to the south: Mexico is fast becoming a failed state.

On September 26, students at the teachers’ college rallying against cuts to their budget came under fire from local police: 6 were killed and 25 wounded. Forty-three of the teacher trainees were abducted, handed over to the local crime syndicate, Guerrero Unido, and executed. According to witnesses, the bodies were then burned.

Parents and their fellow students organized a mass protest, demanding that the government investigate police corruption and reveal what happened to the missing students. The search for the students has become a national issue, with search parties made up of volunteers combing the countryside – and coming up with a lot more than anyone bargained for.

As the New York Times put it:

“Even with hundreds of soldiers, federal officers, state personnel, and local residents on the trail, the search has still not confirmed what happened to the missing students. Instead, it has turned up something just as chilling: a multitude of clandestine graves with unknown occupants right on the outskirts of town, barely concealing the extensive toll organized crime has taken on this nation.”

In less than ten minutes the other day searchers found six mass graves: by the end of that day, the number of graves found was up to nine, with nineteen bodies – but no missing students.

These ghoulish discoveries bring to the forefront a fact long known to Mexico-watchers and long evaded by the country’s politicians and our own: what we are witnessing is the terminal crisis of the Mexican state.

Large sections of the country have descended into lawlessness, with criminal gangs – drug cartels with international reach as well as local groups of bandits – taking the place of governmental authority. In the case of the missing students, it appears that the drug gang had infiltrated the police and the local government: the mayor and his wife have disappeared and presumed to be on the run, and the purported crime chieftain responsible has committed suicide.

I’ve been warning about Mexico’s descent into chaos since 2010: time has not alleviated the crisis, but only exacerbated it. The causes of the problem are well-known: the “war on drugs” has done more to empower organized crime in Mexico than any other single factor. The illegality of drugs on both sides of the border has created a whole constellation of criminal gangs with enormous financial and human resources – mini-states, in effect – whose depredations have brought Mexico to its knees. Incredibly, the US government has aided certain favored cartels by shipping them thousands of American-made weapons via the infamous “Fast and Furious” clandestine operation – a scandal that gives the term “blowback” a whole new (and supremely sinister) meaning.

The breakdown of the social order has provoked a response from Mexicans who want to live in peace: the vigilante movement, which has sprung up in the poor hardscrabble towns of the southern Pacific coast, and spread throughout the country. Vigilantes have taken back their towns from the corrupt police and elected officials, arresting the former and driving the latter away. They’ve armed themselves, set up checkpoints, and appealed to the national government to take action – but have come under attack from Mexico City authorities, who see in them a rival for power.

Libertarians are quick to blame Mexico’s plight on the drug war, but the crisis – and it is a crisis – has long since outdistanced its origins. Whatever one may think of the drug war, its consequences are already out there having their effect: even if all drugs are legalized in the Western hemisphere tomorrow, the criminal gangs the war enriched and empowered will still exist, continuing to operate as they always do – extorting, murdering, and seeking to extend their reign of terror over an ever-greater swathe of territory. Given the failure of the Mexican government at both the local and regional level, these gangs are states-in-embryo, and they act like all states do in their birth-pangs – with inordinate violence.

So what’s the solution? Short of a revolution in Mexico, there isn’t one.

The central government in Mexico City is the biggest obstacle to the resolution of the crisis: it is just as corrupt as its local manifestations, except on a larger scale, and the history of the country does not bode well for a solution.

Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) enjoyed the longest single stretch of unbroken power since the Bolsheviks installed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the Kremlin. While elections were held regularly, the results were seen as the product of massive fraud. The PRI’s hegemony was interrupted in 2000 by the victory of Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), a conservative party based primarily in the northern part of the country, but the PRI returned to power in 2012, when Enrique Pena Nieto, a technocrat imbued with neo-liberal nostrums, took office.

Nieto has sought to divert attention away from Mexico’s crisis of authority by touting alleged economic gains and his own efforts to tamp down crime. The Washington Post reports he recently “delivered a statistics-strewn state of the union speech” in the course of which “he noted that rates of homicides, robberies and other crimes have dropped during his administration.” Mexicans, however, are not convinced: “You will listen to him say everything is wonderful and fantastic, but on the other hand we still have terrible problems with security,” says columnist Guadalupe Loaeza. “He’s much more popular outside than in Mexico because we don’t trust him. We don’t believe him.”

Of course no one believes him – because Mexico is falling apart at the seams. As the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force unravels, and the rule of law becomes just a memory, an entire generation is growing up in Mexico immersed in a culture of impunity and brutality.

What’s astonishing about all this is Washington’s reaction – or, rather, non-reaction. Obsessed with ISIS, the Middle East, and other foreign policy issues even farther afield – in Ukraine, for example – our clueless leaders are ignoring a ticking time-bomb right on their southern doorstep. They are all over the problem of how to save the failed Iraqi state – but the failure of the Mexican state, with its long and porous border with the US, is never even acknowledged.

This is an occupational hazard of imperialism: putting the far frontiers of the empire in close-up focus while ignoring – or, really, not seeing – the very real dangers closer to home. The Mexican cartels already have a presence in the American southwest: how long before the kind of spectacular murder scenes being uncovered south of the border start popping up north of the Rio Grande?

Washington has funded the corrupt Mexican law enforcement apparatus to the tune of over $1 billion – and what we have to show for it are fresh mass graves, uncovered daily, in that country’s heart of darkness. US aid to Mexico must end, now – until and unless they can reform their corrupt police on both the local and national level.

Uncle Sam needs to get his head out of the Middle Eastern sand and direct his attention back to his own hemisphere – where, right next door, a major crisis is incubating. Secondly, we need to realize that we’ve already done too much of the wrong thingfunding and supporting successive Mexican governments that have repressed their own citizens and presided over the looting of the country. Thirdly, our policymakers need to understand that Mexico, in spite of its proximity to our shores, is just like any other failed state in that its history lends itself to failure.

Like Iraq, or any number of African countries in crisis, Mexico was never really a unified country: its borders were established by the depredations of Spanish conquistadors and their Mexican successors, without regard for indigenous peoples or their property rights. The feudal land ownership arrangements inherited from Spain were abolished by the Mexican Revolution only to be turned into state-controlled “land reform” schemes whereby the central government parceled out land to its friends and supporters, leaving peasants landless and poor.

In short, Mexico’s problems are systemic, and wouldn’t even be touched by the ending of the “drug war,” which is routinely blamed for all the country’s problems. The average Mexican lives on less than $13 per day. Less than half of Mexico’s students graduate from high school. And while Mexico is a poor country, that’s not its biggest problem: what’s significant is that the bonds of trust that go to make up a society are frayed to the breaking point. The country’s future is either ongoing slow disintegration or else some traumatic event such as a civil war.

In either case, the message to Washington couldn’t be clearer: Pay attention! Yet our “leaders” are too afflicted with Middle East myopia to see what is happening in plain sight.


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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).